Language Change in Malaysia

Hazadiah Mohamad Dahan, Noor Zaina Idris and Roslinda Wab of Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam, Malaysia, studied how technologies affect language use and how this can potentially lead to language change in Malaysia.

This paper is a brief report on a current exploratory study undertaken by Hazadiah Mohamad Dahan, Noor Zaina Idris and Roslinda Wab of Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam, Malaysia, to understand how modern technologies affect language use and how this can potentially lead to language change in Malaysia.

By focusing on the Face book as a social space, wall interactions taken from fifty respondents in the age group of 18-23 are collected as raw data; these are further supported by data derived from interviews involving 24 students and 24 members of the public and ,survey collected from 385 students to gauge their language preference use and perceptions of new linguistic forms. Hence the study employs both the qualitative and quantitative modes. The study is at the stage of data collection. Findings from a pilot study conducted prior to the collection of data findings seem to indicate that in a multilingual setting, several languages are at risk.

Two primary languages are in contact- Bahasa Malaysia (BM- the National Language) and English. The choice of the vernacular forms of Bahasa Malaysia interdispersed with those of Malaysian variety of English leads to variations that are unique to Facebook.


One of the fundamental facts about languages is that they are always changing in time, albeit it slowly. Many present-day speakers find Shakespeare’s sixteenth century texts difficult and Chaucer’s fourteenth century Canterbury Tales nearly impossible to read. While the Japanese language has changed relatively little over 1,000 years, English has evolved rapidly into new varieties in just a few centuries. The Malaysian English reflects features of indigenization and nativization that clearly distinguish it as a variety of English. New objects, concepts, new activities may require new terms, new ways of expressing but such changes may disrupt grammatical patterns, introduce irregularities which may later be removed.

Frequently used syntactic structures may be reduced to simpler grammatical forms, and language contact may induce speakers to adopt forms and usages from other languages. Consequently, the areas of language that are affected are in phonology (pronunciation), morphology (word formation), semantics (meaning) and structure (grammar).The motivations for change are many and varied since it is speakers who change the way they speak (Holmes, 2008) but only some of them are reasonably well understood. In particular, new technologies have been attributed to language change as a result of the way language users generally realign their language use to reflect social and technological evolution. This involves creation & innovation in language use (Stockwell, 2002; Coulmas, 2005). Some aspects of change have begun to attract the public eye as in the case of the use of txt language in public examinations in New Zealand as reported in New Straits Times, “NZ students to use txt-spk in xm” (NST, Fri. Nov.10, 2006).

Communication in cyber space through chat, facebook and other electronic forms is an important platform for language contact in social space where the use of language often takes place in real time and demonstrates variations. Hence this type of communication shows use of language in its most economical forms which include the use of abbreviations, symbols and emoticons, and heavily reduced syntactic structures. This phenomenon is generally viewed by educationists as having some detrimental impact on the standard language use as it signals the onset of language change. While there has been some research on other aspects of discourse such as facework in Facebook (McNeil, 2008) no research has been done on the phenomenon in Malaysia even though the issues of language change and its pedagogical implications are very critical. Hence, this study which is exploratory in nature, investigates synchronically how language choice in face book affects the English language. This places the role of technologies particularly in cyber space, central to language change..

Primarily the study seeks to examine the nature of the English language use in Facebook for some understanding of potential linguistic features of change in order:

• to identify linguistic features that are affected by change using the above medium
• to examine how change in linguistic features is manifested
• to examine how language change is perceived by both students and the public.

The questions that the study addresses are therefore:
What are the linguistic features affected by change using Facebook?
How is change manifested in linguistic features?
How is language change perceived by both students and the public?

Specifically, this study focuses on aspects of the language which are heavily affected since these are new linguistic forms that exist alongside old ones. In order to gauge the potentiality of these new forms being embedded into linguistic contexts, the attitudes of the users and public to new forms are taken into account. By doing this, researchers will be able to gain some insights into how users relate to new forms and incorporate them in their use.Knowledge gained from the study will not only add to our understanding of the new linguistic culture but assist educationists in making informed decisions about language when confronted with such linguistic issues.

Literature Review

Language change is constant and pervasive but it is often imperceptible affecting the lexicon, meaning, sound and all aspects of the grammar of a particular language. It is slow enough that the replacement of forms and rules is not overt, hardly noticeable within a generation, but fast enough that we are often aware that the generations before and after us use different forms and rules. For many years, sociolinguists have tried to study language change by examining how variability is embedded in social contexts in speech communities today. We can use the present to explain the past, and the past to explain the present as it is now clear that variability is a prerequisite for change. By extrapolating from the patterns of variation we find today, we can make some predictions about the directions change is moving in.(Romaine, 2000:144). The downward diffusion of more standard speech from formal to casual styles is what we would expect when standard and non-standard speech varieties are in contact. Changes may also enter the standard variety and they affect casual speech before more formal styles. This can be seen today from the impact of social, economic, technology and political pressures.

Romaine (2000:159-160) attributes language change or modification to social and ideological change. Such changes may provide important clues to the social class hierarchy and the attachment of social values to linguistic forms. Some of the important changes affecting English and other European languages since the 1970s have arisen from changes in society’s attitudes towards women prompted by political activism. For instance, women have sought to engineer change in the way society perceives them by introducing new term of address such as Ms. We can see that nowadays, in many countries the use of non-sexist language is now legally mandated in certain quarters such as in job advertisements, government publications and media.

The unique way that we speak also fuels language change. It is because we do not use a language in exactly the same way. The vocabulary and phrases we use depend on where we live, our age, education level, social status and other factors. Through our interactions, we pick up new words and sayings and integrate them into our speech. Teens and young adults for example, often use different words and phrases from their parents. Some of them spread through the population and slowly change the language.

Other than that, our needs as speakers drive language change. New technologies, industries, products and experiences simply require new words. For instance, plastic, cell phones and the Internet didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time. These new communication gadgets are not only accessories but important items of necessities nowadays as they shorten the distance and provide fast communication. By using new and emerging terms, all of us drive language change without realizing it.

Two factors influencing language changes are the need to communicate faster and to convey more in each message. To achieve this, we use an increasing armada of personal communication tools, compress the language itself and substitute text with images. Acronyms are typical of our time; via these, complex names and explanations can be avoided, but without context they become meaningless. The Internet site Acronym finder lists more than 344,000 acronyms. If we type ASAP, there are 73 definitions depending on context among others: "As Soon As Possible," "A Stupid Acting Person," "After School Activities Program" and "Always Stop and Pray." Sometimes the abbreviations hide the meaning and only a few know the origin of the term. In IT, there’s an abundance of these magical words, such as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), LAN (Local Area Network), and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).

Technology itself encourages abrupt and abbreviated language use, because in some communication modes it is necessary in order to get across in reasonable time. In chat forums and other text-based digital areas such as internet messenger services, a highly coded language is used, incomprehensible for outsiders. Whole sentences can be said with just one abbreviated word, and numbers are used because of their shorter form for spoken sounds. Some examples from chat abbreviations include IGP (I Gotta Pee), LHO (Laughing Head Off), ^5 (High Five) and <o><o> (staring).

E–mail, for instance, has its own language, a mixture of written and spoken language, mostly written informally. A study reported by BBC (2003) indicated that traditional greetings, as "hello" and "goodbye," are disappearing in e–mail. Instead, slang and universal loanwords are used, a so–called "globespeak." Characteristics of specific languages may diminish in "globespeak." There has also been a detectable decline of etiquette in online conversation and correspondence. This loss of "netiquette" is a source of complaints by many users, because in many cultures and languages, the medium is still the message. For example, in Japan, communication is embedded in rituals and symbols. It is not surprising that emoticons are frequently used in e–mail in Japanese and other Asian countries.

Language and culture are closely intertwined. Young people quickly adopt "universal" chat and SMS–codes and communicate globally. But how acquainted are teachers with these codes? And if they are not, would they be able to gauge how efficient e-chat and other communication modes are in e–learning?.

The growing influence of the English language on other languages has implications for e–learning in non–English speaking cultures. More English terms and grammar are being adopted in other languages. In addition, it has become necessary for the teacher as well as the student to master the language in order to utilize Internet resources and participate in the "global classroom". While many minority languages are dying, there are a number of new hybrid languages emerging, most notably Spanglish (Spanish–English) in Latin and North America. The English language itself is changing as a result of increasing contact with other languages, resulting in the so–called "globespeak."

E–learning is contributing to these changes with faster interactions and units more densely packed with information. Abbreviations and acronyms are necessary in chat and SMS communication to be effective. Do teachers understand and use these codes? E–mail is a blend of spoken and written language, but in fact all text–based communication modes are slower than speech. It is expected that speech and images will play a much larger role in the future of e–learning communication.

The media mix in e–learning is an intricate issue, when tools, programs and bandwidth enable virtually all types of media in a digital course. The pressure to master these techniques and "act" in these channels is enormous on teachers. Required teacher skills to facilitate effective e–learning would include abilities to select appropriate media and to master these media both technically and in terms of content and communication.

Schools and society at large should be more aware of the filtering effects of the Internet related to the change within languages for communication and as a medium of instruction. Society as a whole could benefit from a more integrated approach and certainly further exploration is necessary on the evolution of human language groups. These efforts may lead to the emergence of a common language as described in part by Rosenberg (2004).

Studies on facebook have documented similar characteristics of language use in cyberspace (McNeil (2008), Döring’s (2002) Harper, R., Palen, L. & Taylor, A. (2006)), Thurlow (2003), Bodomo and Lee (2002) and Kasesniemi (2003)).
The dominat features are the use of abbreviations, slang, syntactic reductions, Asterisk emoting, emoticons,deletions of parts of speech (especially subject pronoun, preposition, articles, copula-, auxiliary- or modal verbs (+XP), contractions.

The Method

This study primarily adopts a mixed approach of qualitative and quantitative methods involving survey, interview and document analysis. This corpus-based study uses data taken from Facebook of Malaysian students. A total of 50 participants studying in an institution of higher education in the Klang Valley have gone through random selection using the snowball sampling technique in which upon friends’ invitation and acceptance they are to connect to the Facebook set up by the researchers. This technique is deemed necessary for identifying respondents with particular characteristics (IT savvy, age and gender). They are from the age group of 18-25. Prior to the study, the participants were consulted for their consent in order to gain access to their Facebooks. They were informed beforehand before their facebook was accessed; additionally that they were assured of anonymity. The qualitative data are taken from the Wall which is a part of Facebook where wealth of spontaneous communication can be found. The Wall is chosen as it displays use of language in a natural untampered environment. Initial observation of wall interactions shows that interactions are not only dialogic but they are also triadic in nature. Thus, aspects of language within this speech membership should display characteristics of this speech membership. This would enable researchers to collect linguistic data and compare new features against what is already documented as computer language in research. Deviant items can be viewed as new contributions to the already established data. These new items could be culture specific and would impact the use of standard Malaysian English. The collection of data has been carried out for a period of six months through daily access to respondents’ facebook. An electronic survey consisting of a 10 multiple-choice item questionnaire has been administered to 385 students to gauge their language preference use and perceptions of new linguistic forms. To date the response has not been encouraging. Data from the questionnaires will be quantitatively analysed using SPSS. At this juncture the interview mode not been carried. For the purpose of triangulation, 20 students and 20 members of the public will be interviewed for inputs regarding their perceptions of new linguistic forms. Interviews using structured questions will be qualitatively analysed.


A pilot test comprising 20 students representing the sampling and, who actively use the electronic forms of communication was carried out in order to identify the existence of new linguistic forms; this form the basis of the questionnaire construction.

We began with identifying respondents using the snowball technique, then obtained access to their facebooks with their consent in order to record and collect the data from the various sources provided by respondents. Next, the data gathered will be reduced and analysed qualitatively against a theoretical framework from the sociolinguistic view that commonly addresses language change. Data from the interviews will also be analysed qualitatively. This is for the purpose of triangulation. Hence this study favours the document analysis method. Data from the questionnaire will be analysed quantitatively as inputs to the questions will be organised according to the Likert scale. The various types of data will be analysed according to the research objectives and will provide answers to the research questions.

Some indications of imminent change?

When we examined the small data derived from the face book walls of the students in the pilot study we noted the following:

Even though English is a second language to these respondents, their primary language choice is Bahasa Malaysia but it is the vernacular form that is favoured; the style is conversational, phonic and linguistic forms are heavily contracted.

Sentences are syntactically reduced. Elements of code mixing abound. English forms are indigenised while BM forms, Anglocised.

Both languages seem to be at risk as codeswitching and mixing are precursors to language change. The two linguistic systems seem to be supporting each other in the process of change. The dynamics of change may be more rigorous in a multilingual setting than a monolingual setting.


The study only concentrates on data derived from students aged between 18-25 who are registered with Facebook. Their interactions as a group will show how technology influences their language use. Thus the findings will not represent the population of the entire online community. However, the seminal findings of this exploratory study, will provide a useful documentation of some aspects of change in the English language as a result of new technologies such as the Facebook. This record will allow educationists glimpses into the nature of language evolution, albeit at a modest scale. The study will also contribute to a growing literature on language change especially on English as a variety. However, unlike past researches, this study does not solely investigate the structure of language use as a result of electronic communication. It also seeks to examine the extent of change as well as how users and members of the public perceive language change from a sociolinguistic viewpoint. These two aspects have yet to be covered by other researchers. On the whole, this study will help policy makers and language practitioners to make informed decisions about language change in terms of use and usage.


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Universiti Teknologi MARA
Shah Alam

Published: 05 Apr 2010

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Chief Information Officer (CIO)

Institute of Research, Development and Commersialisation (IRDC) Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Shah Alam, 50450 Shah Alam Selangor Malaysia

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